A World On Fire

Freedom always comes with a price tag. The sad and tragic fact is the price is often shed blood. My own country’s struggle for freedom 240 years ago was a struggle soaked in blood. This morning as I read the news from around the world I see that same struggle happening in country after country. This is nothing new yet in recent days it has struck me in a far more personal way. I have personal connections in many of the places where people are striving for and in some cases dying for freedom.

Freedom Square in Kiev, known locally as Maydan, is a place I have visited many times. I have numerous friends who have been in the square making their voices heard, not only for freedom but for the Gospel. They have had a prayer tent in the middle of the square since day one and they have served the broken and wounded, both the physically broken and spiritually wounded. Scores of people have been killed and hundreds severely injured. Venezuela is following in the footsteps of Ukraine. Reports are that paramilitary bands are roaming the streets on motorbikes shooting anyone who looks like they are going to protest a government that has increasingly oppressed huge portions of the population. Torture and death have become commonplace but still people are massing to protest the brutality. Venezuela is on our minds because one of our daughters-in-law’s family is from Venezuela having been forced out under Chavez. In the South Sudan cities of Juba and Malakal there is gunfire in the streets with rebels and government forces battling. With a team from Northland I trained 100 church planters in those cities a year ago. They and their children go to sleep at night with the percussion of gunfire and explosions of grenades as their lullaby. Bangkok is barely in the news but I have paid close attention, having been there recently and knowing a team of people who are there now training church planters. Then of course there is Egypt which continues to boil. Once again a place in my heart. I have been there 8 or 9 times over the years. My middle son lived there for the first year of the revolution and we have a close partner church one block from Tahrir Square. That church, like others in Kiev, has served as a makeshift hospital in the midst of bloody turmoil.

These places are not far off distant lands to me or my family. They are very real, tangible, close. We can hear the sounds, see the sights, and smell the unique aromas of each of those places. We hear the voices of friends there and see their faces, hear their laughter, feel their anguish. We have talked about the fact that as a family we have a connection to each of these places, about how our hearts ache for our friends. I honestly wish I could be there with them. I long to be there to stand with them, to let them know they are not alone, that others around the world have not forgotten them. But how do you go to half a dozen places at once? You don’t. But even going to one is not an option. Not because of the danger, but because I know my friends. In one moment they would be thrilled and encouraged by my arrival and in the next their amazing love and hospitality and concern would kick in and they would end up focusing their time and energy on me and not the task at hand. So I stay on my back porch and think of them, pray for them and write to all of you about them. I pray for Oleg, Anatoly, Nadia, Olena, Fayez, Nader, Sarah, Matta, Patrick, their families and many others who yearn for freedom and are paying a price in its struggle and are at the same time being a witness to others of the love of Christ, risking their safety so others may know Jesus.

Know Jesus. That’s really the point isn’t it? Even in thinking about freedom and the price paid for it, one cannot escape the Gospel. I said that the price of freedom is often paid in blood. I wonder, should we really be surprised by that when the price of our ultimate freedom was also blood? There is a great passage in John 8:31-6 where Jesus says that the truth will set us free and that in Him we have true freedom. The religious leaders argued that they had always been free and didn’t need Him to make them free. But as He usually did, Jesus meant something far deeper than physical or even political freedom. He was talking about being spiritually free, which is the most important of all freedoms. He was talking about the fact that we are all enslaved to our sins and desires but that He came to pay the price, the blood price for our freedom. We say that our freedom as Americans has been purchased by the blood sacrifice of countless others who died so we might live. Jesus is the premier example of paying that price for our freedom. He shed His blood so that all who believe and trust in Him might have freedom from guilt, freedom from sin, freedom from the bondage and slavery of our broken human nature. I can’t think about Kiev, Bangkok, Juba, Malakal, Cairo, or the friends I have in those places without thinking about Jesus who gave everything that I might be free. As He said in John 8, “If the Son has set you free, you are free indeed”.

So I pray for my friends, that they would know Jesus presence and freedom even in the midst of suffering. I pray that they would know they are not alone, that He is with them. Yet I wonder perhaps if they don’t already know His presence in the midst of pain far better than I do from the comfort of my back porch. I suspect they really do, for Jesus makes Himself known to us in the midst of the furnace in ways not possible in the midst of comfort.

Finally I ask that you pray for them as well. Pray for Jesus to show up in those places and change hearts as only He can. As you pray for them, pray for yourself also. Pray that Jesus sets you free and makes Himself known to you as never before.

 

A Witness to Grace and Courage in South Sudan

Just days before we boarded a plane for South Sudan, another fight broke out along the boarder between Sudan and South Sudan.  Three days and five flights later we arrived in Malakal, a boarder town that just a few months ago witnessed two days of street fighting between rebel infiltrators from the north and South Sudanese militia. It was just one more of countless such battles that have taken place during the decades long civil war that ended with independence for South Sudan in July of 2011. The war, which claimed more that 2 million lives, has officially ended, but the fighting has not. In fact Sudanese President Bashir has recently declared that he intends to retake South Sudan and incorporate it back into Sudan. I have no doubt that the South Sudanese will resist that prospect with all they have. The latest round of fighting was set off when Sudanese planes bombed a town in South Sudan. The south retaliated and actually captured Heglig, a town in Sudan’s oil fields. Since then the sabers have been rattling overtime. Security in Malakal is a constant concern as I learned when I opened the door of the SUV we were to ride in and found that I was literally riding shotgun. An AK-47 was placed between my seat that the middle arm rest. A bullet hole was in the windshield in front of me at forehead level.

Riding shotgun, well actually riding "AK-47"

The root of the problem in Sudan and South Sudan is that Bashir has declared that Islamic Sharia law is to be imposed on all Sudan. He originally was content to let the Christian south secede so that he had little or no interference with his plan. It seems he hoped to also drive out Christians from Sudan and force them to move to South Sudan. Yet, hundreds of thousands of Christians remained in the north and continued to live out their Christian faith and witness. Despite threats, loss of jobs, destruction of homes, and numerous other hardships, they remain. Not only do they remain, but their service and love of their Muslim neighbors has resulted in continual conversions from Islam to Jesus. So Bashir’s latest statement is that the conflict will end either in Jubba, the capitol of South Sudan or in Khartoum, the capitol of Sudan. His meaning is clear. One country or the other will have to conquer and impose it’s will militarily.

 

For three days in Malakal, Pastor Gus Davies, John Tardonia, Alan Carpenter, and I had the blessed honor of working with some of the most courageous and gracious people I have ever met. I have been to numerous countries over the last several years and encountered people in all sorts of situations. Never have a met a group of people who have endured so much, for so long, with such grace, courage, and even joy. The pastors and leaders that we are working with in Sudan and South Sudan have known nothing but war for their entire lives. They all know people, including family members, who are among the 2 million dead. Yet, they see nothing but opportunities to love their neighbors and their enemies. Often those two groups, neighbor and enemy, are one and the same. It seems that they view this fact as being convenient. Instead of needing to love a neighbor and an enemy, they get to love both in one person, half the effort.

Not only is the war part of daily life, but so is poverty, sickness, and deprivations that we in the west would find shocking. Consider two numbers. First, 95% of South Sudanese will never finish primary school, or what we in American call elementary school. Second, 50 out of every 1,000 women giving birth will die doing so. One person told us, “If you are sick and go to the hospital you will die. If you are healthy and go to the hospital, you will get sick and then you will die”. Yet as these wonderful people speak of the hardships in their lives they do so with a smile as they talk about all the doors such hardship opens for sharing the Gospel and loving the needy. They don’t seem to knotice that they are among the needy.

One of many South Sudanese pastors who inspired me with his joy.

At Northland Church we talk about the Church Distributed. By that we mean, every follower of Christ takes the church with them, everywhere, everyday, and that a gathering of two or three people in Jesus name is the church gathered. You don’t need buildings to love and serve people for Jesus and you can start churches anywhere, in a home, a business, under a tree. In Malakal we completed the second level of Distributed Church training for 74 pastors and leaders. In the 5 months since they attended Level 1, nearly 1,000 people have come to faith in Christ because of their efforts, and churches are being started in homes and numerous other locations. Among the trainees were fourteen from Sudan. At the end of the training we gathering them together to pray for them as they were returning north to an uncertain future. There was no fear, anxiety, or consternation in any of them, only the anticipatory joy of heading back into the lions den in order to conquer the lion with the love of Christ. One of them told me of being threatened with his life on numerous occasions. With a laugh he told me that his response is always the same, “I say to them, if you kill me I just get to go and be with Jesus in heaven that much more quickly”. I know that he says it with all sincerity and with a joyous smile on his face. The response is always the same. They either walk away or get this puzzled look on their face which opens the door to talking about the Jesus he loves so deeply.

During the time in Malakal we also met with the head of the Roman Catholic Diocese, the Anglian Bishop, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Sudan and the Minister of Health for Upper Nile State. Each of them demonstrated the same courage, faith, and joy that had become so common in our time there. All four are desperate for us to work with them in changing the culture of South Sudan. From training their pastors, of the 475 Presbyterian pastors less that 40% are trained, to providing medical care and clean water, the doors are wide open for ministry that will glorify God and change lives.

Since returning to Florida several people have asked if we were frightened to be there. The fighting going on was about 100 miles from Malakal. Pastor Gus and I have spoken often on this subject and the conclusion is always the same. When you know that God wants you to be someplace, then the safest place you can be is in that place. The most dangerous place you can be is someplace, anyplace, else. That doesn’t mean there is no danger. Things could go badly, quickly. But that is where one must trust that the Lord of the Universe, who called you to that place, has a better perspective than you do. Additionally, the South Sudanese are not nameless, anonymous people. The pastors we trained are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are family. Our being there, if only for a few days, was a huge encouragement to them. They were reminded that they were not alone, that Christians from as far away as Florida were standing with them in the furtherance of the Gospel and the changing of the world. How could we possibly stay home in our comfort, knowing that family needs us? Putting up with a few days of no running water, 100+ temperatures with no A/C, and bed bugs that made my hands look like I stuck them in a fire ant mound, was not even worth fretting over if it meant being able to witness the grace and courage of these amazing saints.

Pastors having a tea break in Malakal, S. Sudan

Pray for them. Pray for Sudan and South Sudan. Pray that these pastors and leaders are able to change the culture and change their world. Pray that God will in deed supply all they need through the riches available in Christ Jesus our Lord. When you hear a news report or read a magazine article that mentions Sudan and South Sudan, don’t just gloss over it because it it over there, somewhere. Instead let that be the reminder that you too are connected with people there. Stop your reading if only for a moment and ask God to continue to bless them with grace and courage. While you are at it, ask Him to increase those things in your life too.